Having a laugh with a local in Bhutan.

“People who held positive age beliefs from the outset [since they were young adults] went on to experience 30% better memory scores in old age than their peers with negative age beliefs”

This is what aging researcher and professor of public health and psychology at Yale University Becca Levy, PhD, found in her research. I learned a lot about her research in my gerontology courses at the University of Southern California and I am now reading her book Breaking the Age Code.

Levy looked at the participants of The Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA), which is the longest running investigation of memory and aging. She then matched the age beliefs of these people when they were young adults to their memory scores when they reached their 60s, about 38 years later.

The beneficial impact of having positive beliefs about aging, like being optimistic about aging, was greater than other factors like age, physical health and years of education. 

She later did many other studies and looked across cultures, such as those in Asia where attitudes to aging are more positive than in our western culture. She discovered that different cultural beliefs about aging are strong enough to hijack memory performance in later life if they are negative.

There are many types of memory, but in this case, she tested memory by presenting each of the participants 10 geometric-figure cards for 10 seconds, removed each card, and then asked participants to reproduce the figure from memory. 

Breaking The Aging Code, Becca Levy, PhD

PROCESSING MEMORY

Our brains are incredibly smart and when it comes to memory there are several steps it takes to first record the memory and then recall it.

  • Receive – Our five senses (smell, touch, taste, sight and hearing) receives the information. Like smelling our grandma’s famous curry dish.
  • Encode – The brain then converts or encodes this information into a form to be stored first in our short-term memory
  • Store – Some of this information is then transferred into long-term memory storage. It can take anywhere from a few seconds to several months. When learning a language, for example, it is very useful if you can repeat certain words over and over again to keep it in your long-term memory.
  • Retrieve – This is our ability to recall information that is stored in our long-term memory

TYPES OF MEMORY

Six types of memory and how they change with aging

  1. Working memory usually declines with age. It’s the short term memory that’s needed to remember numbers, for example, and may take a little longer to figure out a math problem than before.  
  2. Episodic memory somewhat declines with age. This is like recalling something like what you ate for lunch. Because they’re related to emotions, having a strong positive or negative feeling about something will be easier to recall.
  3. Metacognition improves in later life. This is thinking about what you’re thinking
  4. Procedural memory stays the same as we age. Like remembering how to swim or brush your teeth. 
  5. Semantic memory improves with age. This is general knowledge like knowing the meanings of words and facts.
  6. Prospective memory moderately declines with age. We use this to remember events and appointments that are to happen in the future.

There are many factors that affect how we age and our memory, like what we eat, how we move, our genes and the beliefs we have about aging, so it’s hard to make a general statement, but we now know that people who have positive beliefs about aging are more likely to have better memory. 

What are your beliefs about aging? If they’re negative are you ready to change them for the better?